Local officials back critical-area plan

But concessions worry environmentalists

By Timothy B. Wheeler, Sun reporter
March 7, 2008

The O'Malley administration's effort to tighten shoreline development restrictions gained political momentum yesterday, as local officials announced their support for the bill after winning key concessions.

But the compromise worried environmental advocates, who said they hope the legislation will still be sufficient to ensure that the 24-year-old Critical Area law can better protect the Chesapeake Bay from development. Developers also continued to object to the proposed rules, saying they go too far.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., president of the Maryland Association of Counties, joined administration officials at a hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday to declare the support of his politically potent group for the compromise.

"Everybody had the protection, preservation, promotion, enhancement of our environment and the Chesapeake Bay in mind," Smith said. "But everybody had a somewhat different attitude and belief on how that can be accomplished."

Details of the deal have yet to be ironed out, but administration officials say they agreed to drop a bid to give the state the final say in whether property owners and developers can get after-the-fact waivers or variances from the shoreline.

Such approvals of violations are "one of the conspicuous aspects of what's broken" about the effort to keep homes and pavement from crowding the bay, said Margaret McHale, chairwoman of the 29-member Critical Area Commission that oversees the waterfront development law. McHale said local officials agreed to work more closely with her agency as they decide such cases, which she hoped would spare the commission from having to go to court to reverse local decisions to which it objects. Litigation over disputed homes in Anne Arundel and Wicomico counties, among others, has dragged on for years.

The administration also agreed to reduce the regulatory authority it was seeking for the 29-member Critical Area Commission that oversees the waterfront development law. Another compromise would limit the extent to which new growth permitted along the water would have to follow the state's Smart Growth policy of concentrating new building around existing communities.

Those proposals had been major sticking points with county and municipal officials, who had complained the administration bill would let the state usurp local control over land use.

Environmental advocates, who have pressed for reforming the law, said they had yet to see the proposed changes to the bill but hoped the administration did not give too much.

"Refining that language is one thing -- stripping the language is another," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Patuxent Riverkeeper.

McHale said the changes still give the commission plenty of room to enhance shoreline protections. She agreed to ease proposed restrictions on local officials' ability to approve new growth along undeveloped shoreline, she said, so that rural communities could meet needs such as new gas stations or firehouses.

The law, a centerpiece of the state's efforts to save the bay from decline, regulates development within 1,000 feet of the bay -- a strip of waterfront dubbed "critical area" because of its vital role in shielding the bay from polluted runoff and in protecting wildlife.

Builders and property owners, meanwhile, continued to oppose other proposed restrictions in the ambitious overhaul that they argued are unnecessary and infringe on landowners' rights.

They also objected to a proposal to expand from 100 feet to 300 feet the minimum distance from the water for new homes in rural stretches of shoreline. Ernest I. Sheppe, a Harford County water-resources engineer, said there is no scientific evidence to support such a setback requirement.

Chad Malkus of Cambridge, a cousin of the late Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., said that he feared the 300-foot setback would ruin his dream of building a home on his family's farm along the Little Blackwater River in Dorchester County. The lots his father plans to deed to him and his brother are not deep enough to meet that requirement, he said.

McHale said the bill would waive the setback if it would prevent any development of a lot. Earlier, Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the committee that a federal review of research found that 300-foot buffer strips soak up 70 percent of the nutrient pollution harming the bay's water quality, while 100-foot buffers remove 45 percent of the pollution.

(Revised Mar 2008)